Many people often read popular fantasy books and question why they appeal to such a wide audience. While obviously no book will appeal to everyone, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about what makes some of these series so impressive to many people.
Joe Abercrombie has an incredible talent for writing real people. His characters all live and breathe in the story and act as normal people would instead of formulaic characters or catalysts who just are there to move the plot forward. They learn from their mistakes, grow-up, don’t always do the right thing and generally feel like people you could meet on the street instead of two dimensional characters from a book.
Abercrombie’s books are very popular with more veteran fantasy readers who have seen a lot of tropes time and time again (not that there is anything wrong with tropes). He has a way of writing an age old story in a way that no one has done before. I recently read Half the World and despite the story being similar to other books I have read, Abercrombie tells it in such a rich and vivid way that I feel like I am experiencing the true version of the story for the first time. He also writes some of the best combat scenes in the genre. Every fight feels memorable and is so much more than just two guys beating at each other with swords.
Few people really understand what they are getting into when they start Gardens of the Moon. Malazan has an absolutely INSANE scope, size, and worldbuilding. You know when you read something like Game of Thrones, and they talk all about Westeros, and they do some hand waving and say “yea there are other continents out there/empires etc but who cares?” Malazan does the opposite of that. Erikson creates a world where literally every culture and people is fleshed out (not to mention some pretty non-standard races and species). It often overwhelms people because it is like trying to explain every culture and history on the planet to an alien who just landed on earth. Gardens of the Moon is throws you into the story but as you continue, the context and world become more clear. The story is meticulously planned out so that despite being enormous in scope, it all weaves together beautifully.
But with such a huge world you would expect it to be too hard to develop more than a few meaningful characters right? Except not at all. Malazan has more of my favorite characters in fantasy than literally every other series I have ever read combined. It is a phone book of astoundingly interesting characters who are all incredibly varied. An interesting side note is that the female characters are often regarded as some of the best written in fantasy because the books do not care about what your gender is, just what you can accomplish. Added to all of this is a great plot that is exciting and thought provoking.
The Name of the Wind has 3 components that make it great. First, the prose is astoundingly good. Rothfuss has a talent for beautiful writing and certainly meets the standard of George RR Martin that people have grown used to in the wake of his popularity. Second, the story is both incredibly long and extremely exciting. This is not a book where he spends hundreds of pages building to an exciting moment. Instead, this is a book where he is using an exciting moment to get to the next exciting moment. This is the kind of book where you need to tell a friend to take the book from you at a certain time because it is very difficult to put down. Third, and possibly most importantly, Rothfuss does not waste words. There is a scene I remember vividly that demonstrates this perfectly. At some point Kvothe needs to take a boat trip, and it literally lasts a page. It says something like:
“All you need to know about the journey is I got on a boat, some things happened on the way, and I ended up at my destination without any possessions and very wet”
Rothfuss’ ability to know when to not spend 80 pages explaining something boring is what makes the book so addicting. Also, for added measure the world is pretty cool and the magic pretty awesome.
So taste is very subjective, but this is the only book on this list that if you do not like I am going to assume there is something wrong with you. This is quite literally the funniest series I have ever read. These books are such a good time that I had to stop reading them on the train because I sounded like a psychopath as I fell to pieces laughing.
Locke and Jean’s dialogue is just amazing. The books are infinitely quotable because almost every dialogue, internal monologue, or stray description is enough to make you laugh out loud. On top of this, the series follows thieves and their high jinks, something sorely lacking in the world of fantasy. The plot is interesting and versatile and the storytelling uses both the past and present simultaneously to teach you about the characters upbringing and show you how it shaped their present day actions. If you want to just feel good and smile (and occasionally cry) these are the books for you.
Sanderson is hard to define. I will say short and sweet because I am not that sure what to say. Sanderson is kind of incredible. He churns out books at an ALARMING rate, and while they are not always the first time any story has been told, they certainly hold their own. His books are all above average in quality on almost any possible metric (plot, character, world, prose, etc.) and all have his spark in them. I have yet to find a writer who can make me stand up and shout “YES” the way Sanderson can. Every book he writes provokes emotions and connection that other books grasp at.
Way of Kings in particular achieves this in droves. It is hard to put my finger on it but the book is just epic: the plot is exciting, the trials excruciating, the triumphs exciting, the defeats heart-wrenching. Even when an event is predictable you are still excited to hear Sanderson write it for you. He is a writer to inspire you and put a fire in your heart.